Rio Water Pollution: An Olympic Size Problem

Rio Olympic Symbol

A scene featuring untreated sewage flowing into a nearby bay with loose garbage floating in the water and covering the neighboring beach sounds like the nightmarish conditions of some dystopian movie, not the site of future Olympic events. These toxic waters have found themselves front and center of the 2016 Summer Olympics news thanks to a recent Associated Press article that details the extent of the Rio water pollution. If you’re hoping to limit your holiday eating, reading further is sure to curb your appetite.

The filthy bays of Rio de Janeiro are becoming a big concern for groups like FINA who are worried about their swimmers being in waters that have been deemed unsafe. A staggering 70 percent of Rio’s sewage goes untreated and is running off into waterways like the Copacabana where Olympic open water swimming and triathlon events are scheduled to take place in the summer of 2016.

When Rio made its bid for the games in 2009, they addressed their water cleanliness problems and promised the water would be cleaned by the time the world flocked to Brazil. However, water tests conducted mere weeks ago showed that the waters of the Copacabana still have a high level of fecal coliform bacteria, 70 times higher than what the country deems “satisfactory.” The fecal pollution in the water is about 195 higher than the US standards.

Problem Areas

In addition to the waters of Copacabana, the ISAF is concerned for its sailors who will be competing in the water at Guanabara Bay. This huge problem area has contaminated waters due to the liquid byproducts of rotting trash from a nearby landfill (the largest in South America) that leaches into the ocean water. There is a large amount of trash in the bay, both floating like huge islands in the water at low tide and blanketing the nearby beaches. It’s not uncommon to spot significant pieces of furniture like a couch or washing machine. The water, which in the '70s was home to a thriving fishing industry, is now a dump for shipyards and home to only two commercial ports. Brazilians won’t swim in the water, save a few locals from neighboring slums.

Rowing and canoeing is slated to take place in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon where there are often massive fish die-offs. Such an event happened last March which was caused by heavy rains that washed rotting algae into the lagoon that depleted oxygen levels and killed the fish in the water. An estimated 80 tons of fish suffocated during the process. It took approximately 4800 man hours to clean up the mess.

The Brazil environmental agency INEA whose job is to protect and preserve the environment, has given almost all of Rio’s 13 bayside beaches a rating of “terrible.”

The Olympic park in the Barra neighborhood sees untreated waste flowing from nearby housing and shantytowns. This is where half of the events of 2016 are set to be held.

Rio Water Pollution

Rio’s Efforts

Despite getting $700 million dollars worth of funding from the Japanese government to clean up the problem at Guanabara Bay back in the '90s, there doesn’t seem to be much to show for their efforts over the past 20 years. There’s speculation that corruption in the Brazilian government syphoned off some of that money while city officials chalk it up to poor planning. The money did build five sewage treatment plants, but they apparently weren’t ever adequately connected to the city’s sewage waste system and the plants were never utilized to their full capacity. One of the five plants has never treated any sewage at all.

There are a few methods in place to clean up the water. The city authorities are looking to build RTUs or “river treatment units” that will filter out the bulk of the trash and untreated human waste before it reaches the bay. The collection sites would be costly because they would require trucks constantly loading and shuttling waste to landfills. Environmentalists view this as a Band-Aid measure that just collects trash and waste instead of preventing it from making its way to the water in the first place.

Authorities are also considering garbage boats as an option, ships that would filter garbage out of the water as they travel the bay. This also seems like a temporary fix instead of a permanent solution. In addition, so called “eco-barriers” have been put in place to block trash from drifting into the bay. These barriers are chains of plastic buoys strung across the rivers to catch large pieces of drifting junk.

The Brazilian government has recently shut down 10 landfills near the bay that were leaching toxic sludge into the bays. However, there are several that still operate illegally near the water.

Commitment from Organizers

The organizers of the Rio games have seemed to minimize the problem, promising progress and assuring the public and potential athletes that they won’t let anyone be harmed in or by the water. They recently issued a written statement along those lines in order to reassure the public. The hope is to reduce the pollution coming into the bay by 80 percent. However, outside authorities worry the cleanup is not moving fast enough to get everything in passable, let alone safe, conditions in less than three years. Olympic officials are concerned that events will either have to be moved or potentially cancelled if conditions don't drastically improve.

All of the untreated human waste in the water creates an environment where pathogens and disease-causing organisms are rampant. Dr. Casey Brown, civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was asked what she would do if she would do if she were a potential Olympian preparing to swim in the noxious water. Her answer? “I would make sure all my shots were up to date.”

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